Photo: The Road Provides/Shutterstock

A Day in the Life of an Expat in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea
by Alice Banfield Jan 19, 2012
Living in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, Alice Banfield spent her time stori-ing with her adopted family, running post-conflict human rights workshops, and trying not to get rained on throughout the night.

MOST DAYS I WAKE around six, and today is no different. It’s already light, but the sun is still low enough behind the coconut trees outside my room that I don’t have to face its full intensity for a little while yet. Later, it’ll start streaming in through the gaps in the bamboo weave which make up my walls.

I can hear the sound of sweeping; I can always hear it at this time of morning. The women do it every day, sweeping clean the sandy ground that surrounds our houses in the village. I can feel a dampness on my pillow. It rained heavily during the night, and there’s a small gap in the sago-palm roofing, just above my head.

Rising, I step outside and walk across our yard to the well, to haul water for my shower. Then I hear someone calling out to me. “Wara i stap, Alice!” It’s Sandy, my host mum, letting me know that today she has beat me to it.

Sandy is from a village about an hour north, and married to a man from the clan here. The two of them became good friends with my mom when she worked here with the recently-formed government of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville–part of Papua New Guinea, which gained its autonomous status after a civil war which lasted around a decade and ended in 2001.

Through connections I made when I once went to visit my mom, I’ve ended up back here, working as an intern with a development agency in the regional capital, and living in the village with Sandy, her husband, and their teenage son. Sandy tells me they consider me their daughter. I believe her: I’m twenty-three years old and they won’t let me go out past nine on a Friday night.

I’m twenty-three years old and they won’t let me go out past nine on a Friday night.

The water in the buckets which Sandy has filled is brackish, since the well is only a short distance from the sea, so I take a small bottle to our rainwater tank and fill that too, for rinsing my hair. Only a little though–our tank once ran dry after a long period without rain, leaving us with no source of drinkable water except the jerry cans which Sandy had filled in advance.

I shower on a raised platform outside, gazing at the sky overhead, my privacy ensured by three walls of tarpaulin and a shower curtain.

After a quick breakfast of fresh fruits and coffee, I take my umbrella and leave the house. It doesn’t often rain at this time of morning, but the sun is now intense and I need the umbrella for shade. I bump into Margaret, a middle-aged woman who lives on the other side of the hibiscus hedge from us. I think she’s the cousin of Sandy’s husband, Francis, but I’m not sure–relationships are complex here, and I don’t know exactly how they all fit together.

Margaret’s also on her way to work, so together we turn onto the main road, a short strip of tar-seal which leads into town in one direction, and abruptly turns into a pot-holed dirt highway in the other. As we walk, we stori — one of my favourite Pidgin words (both to say and to do), and which more or less means “chat.”

The road’s busy at this time of morning, with ute-loads of workers heading into town from the outlying villages, uniformed school children waiting for the next bus, and women walking back from their daily swim in the sea, the wet sarongs in which they have washed still clinging to them. Other women are heading to the gardens behind the palm trees on the side of the road furthest from the beach, carrying a machete and sometimes a small child, ready for the day’s work. We greet every passer-by, the response always accompanied by a smile stained red from chewing betelnut, and the path spattered blood-red with spittle.

Twenty minutes later, I reach my office, grateful that the air-conditioning is working today. The focus of my internship here is human rights, a challenging sector in a post-conflict region. Violence against women and children, for example, is perpetrated at alarmingly high rates. Papua New Guinea is party to international human rights treaties designed to protect people from such violations, and my job here is ostensibly about making those treaties a reality at the grassroots, by providing support to those who are already working to defend human rights. This means working with everyone from government, to civil society organizations, to activist-nuns. But I realize there is a limit to what I can achieve during a 10-week internship off the back of university, and my role here first and foremost is to learn as much as possible.

We greet every passer-by, the response always accompanied by a smile stained red by chewing betelnut, and the path spattered blood-red with spittle.

After a few hours standard office admin – email and the like – my boss suggests I accompany him to a youth workshop, and asks me to run a session on human rights. It’s not something I’m prepared for, but I’m getting used to the “expect the unexpected” approach to dealing with life here.

We jump in a ‘banana boat,’ a small, open boat with a 25-horsepower engine, and head to the other of the two main islands which comprise Bougainville. The passage between these two is fast-flowing and narrow, but since the weather’s fine today, our journey is smooth and takes only five minutes.

There, we are greeted by a large group of youth waiting inside an open-air hall. They come from a rural constituency and range in age from 18 to over 30. “Youth” is a broad term here, and refers to anyone who is no longer in school but is not yet married.

Someone takes a coconut husk and wipes the whiteboard clean, and I begin the session with a brainstorming exercise on the human rights issues faced by the local communities. The participants come up with a long list of issues: violence against women and children, rape, forced marriage, child marriage, discrimination on the grounds of gender or HIV status, and on it goes. They next form into small groups, pick one issue, and together discuss what practical steps they could take to address this issue within their communities.

When the groups report back, the spokesperson for the first group is a young man with dreadlocks, a green t-shirt, and gums stained red by years of betelnut-chewing. He talks about the issue of discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDs. Half-way through, he introduces a second spokesperson, a young woman he explains was chosen “to show gender equity, you know.” Their group has come up with five practical activities to address the discrimination, ranging from running awareness events on HIV/AIDs, to supporting those who are directly affected by it.

When the workshop finishes, I boat back to the office and snack on ice-cream whilst typing up a report from some recent stakeholder consultations. Normally I have a more substantial lunch like sak sak, a pudding-like dish made from sago palm cooked in coconut milk, wrapped inside banana leaves. But they’ve stopped selling the usual cooked food at the markets as part of the safety precautions in place to stem the recent cholera outbreak.

We live next to Tatok, a popular local band who make music by beating bamboo drums with the soles of old flip-flops.

Following a last-minute NGO meeting in the afternoon, I leave town in time to make it back to the village just before dinner. Dinner, like the dark, always comes early. Sandy has cooked tonight, over the open fire outside. Like most nights, it’s rice topped with instant noodles and a few vegetables, with a sweet potato (or savory banana) on the side, and a spinach-like green called ibika. Occasionally we have fish, if a friend’s had a good day out fishing.

Most of life is lived outside, and eating is no exception. Sitting under the overhang of our house, a fluorescent light is buzzing above us, forming a counterpoint to the rhythmic, popping beat coming from next door, behind Margaret’s house. It’s Tatok, a popular local band who make music by beating bamboo drums with the soles of old flip-flops. It’s surprisingly harmonious, and I count us lucky to be neighbors, especially when it’s time for band practice.

There’s a smell of coconut in the air from the copra, or dried coconut kernel, which Sandy has been making to sell. It’s hard to see much beyond the flecks of orange from the charcoal fire, and the darkness is heavy–a new moon and cloudy skies. I think it’s going to rain.

With the falling of the dark has come a coolness, so we sit out there and we stori a while. Sometimes Sandy’s husband Francis will tell me stories from the war, about the various places he sought refuge. But tonight the conversation is more lighthearted, as Sandy tells us of her previous life, long ago, when she was a flight attendant for an international airline. She regales us with the tale of the time she and her fellow stewardesses went clubbing in Singapore. “But we were silly back then,” she says, as though she needs to justify her youth.

When stori is over, it’s time for bed. I take a quick shower first, this time hauling the water myself, and washing under the stars. As I look up at them, unusually muted tonight behind the clouds, I wonder what tomorrow will bring. But mostly, I hope I’ll get through the night without the rain hitting my pillow.

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